The Future of Anti-Virus Software

Updated: April 30, 2009

Anti-virus software elicits a variety of responses from industry executives, analysts and users.

Some question the usefulness of the software and view signature-based offerings in a particularly dim light. Others cite the performance effects that anti-virus tools have on PCs. Anti-virus proponents, however, believe that the technology will endure as a component of a layered defense strategy, pointing to the addition of behavior-based scanning .

"As long as viruses exist, anti-virus programs will be designed to help protect users from online threats," said Tim Rains, security response communications lead for Microsoft .

Rains pointed to data stemming from Microsoft's Malicious Software Removal Tool as supporting the importance of running anti-virus software. The tool removed malware from 1 out of every 217 computers in the first half of 2007, compared with 1 out of every 409 computers in 2006 and 1 out of every 359 computers in the second half of 2005.

Network Distribution

But there's another anti-virus issue to consider: Will anti-virus software continue to evolve as a third-party product, or will it become a feature embedded in OSes?

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, said he believes basic security should be part of the OS platform.

"With IBM mainframes, the core security came from IBM, and for Unix, core security was provided by the platform owners," he said. "If you needed extra, that could come from a number of sources. But basic security — and anti-virus is basic security — should be part of the platform in my view."

David Lawson, director of risk management at Acumen Solutions Inc., a business and technology consulting firm, has a different take on where the anti-virus function will reside. He believes that anti-virus tools may end up embedded in the network, noting that the centralization of anti-virus technology would provide an efficiency boost.

"I would suggest we pull [anti-virus] away from the desktop and centralize it more," Lawson said. Lawson said that he sees anti-virus software moving to network devices as part of rule-based forwarding and on application servers.

Enderle, meanwhile, said that user demands at the OS level will alter the anti-virus landscape. "I think we are seeing a trend where people who use … Windows, Apple and Linux expect the folks who supply it to provide for their basic security needs," he explained. "This will likely change the anti-virus market dramatically."

Key Differentiators

However, George Myers, director of product management for Symantec Corp .'s endpoint security group, said he believes that the company's wares remain sufficiently differentiated, even as more entries hit the market. "There's still a very big difference in the level of security offered by different anti-virus technologies," he said.

Those technologies are not "commoditized in any way," Myers said. He also cited Symantec's security focus and culture as factors that differentiate it from an OS company that offers security.

But for platforms such as Windows, users seek greater anti-virus integration, Enderle suggested. He said that built-in anti-virus technology topped the wish list when Microsoft surveyed users on what they wanted in Windows 7. That built-in aspect, he added, "is why Microsoft's OneCare is so much less annoying to use than most third-party offerings."

Microsoft's Windows Live OneCare solution includes anti-virus/anti-spyware tools, phishing and firewall protection, and PC tune-up and backup utilities, Rains said. The company also offers Forefront Client Security, which provides a unified anti-virus and anti-spyware solution for protecting business desktops, laptops and server OSes, he added.

When queried on third-party anti-virus products versus built-in tools, Rains said that Microsoft "entered the security products business in response to customer requests for easier and more integrated security products."

But Microsoft said that it will continue to work with ISVs (independent software vendors) and other partners. "Microsoft will continue to collaborate with a wide range of partners, as well as delivering our own solutions to help better protect the broader PC ecosystem," Rains said.

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